From Ireland's Great Hunger to the brave Irish heroes of the US Civil War, Niall O'Dowd examines how Irish Famine emigrants changed the landscape of American history.

Niall O'Dowd, Founder of, the Irish Voice and Irish America Magazine, and author of "George Washington and the Irish" and "Lincoln and the Irish" was guest of honor at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick 239th Anniversary Dinner in Manhattan, on March 16, 2023.

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick is an American charitable and social organization for Irish Americans founded in 1771.

Here is Niall O'Dowd's speech in full:

I want you to think tonight of the people who got you here to the finest restaurant in the most famous city in the world and I’m not talking about your Uber drivers.

I am talking about those who came before us, who lifted us up from fleeing the famine to the  No Irish Need Apply signs to the prominent positions we hold now. 

You know the last “No Irish Need Apply" sign was discovered in upstate New York in 1932, within the lifetime of people still alive so it is no abstract consideration. They were certainly around in your grandparent’s generation.

You also know a hundred years ago the only Irish allowed in a place like this would be a servant, a toilet cleaner or a  waitress. At night those workers went home to hovels in the Five Points neighborhood 

Simply put they were people scraping out a  desperate living the victims of ethnic cleansing, not long off an emigrant ship known as the coffin ships because 0ne third of the passenger died even before seeing the promised land of America.

I want you to remember tonight those people who made it through it all, through the worst famine of the 19th century the ethnic cleansing, the coffin boat voyage from hell and arrived here to face more prejudice. Yet they survived.

Remember tonight that’s where you came from and know who brought you, whose shoulders you stand on. When they took that first brave step and boarded the ship for America you traveled with them and in America, they were victims of nativist hatred and every adversity known to man. What drove them is they sought a chance not just for themselves but their children and childrens' children who would come after.

Wherever it got bleakest in Famine times there was only one way to escape, a whispering hope carried on every tide that America would truly be a land of the free for the huddled masses if they could only get there. They did and that's how you got here tonight.

They would be so proud, astonished even to see how far you have come, how high we have lifted our heads, and how remarkable the change has been in a few generations. Your success is the result of their sacrifice.

They left very little of a written record, it was too painful to look back so they kept what seemed an eternal silence about what happened to them. The Famine became something to hide in the deepest recesses of your mind—too much pain, too much sorrow. "Banished Children of Eve" as writer Peter Quinn called them.

That is now changing. It is wonderful to report that since about the mid-1990s the Irish in Ireland have begun to grapple with the Famine and how it transformed both Irish and American history, The sound of silence is no more, either there in Irish America. Not three miles from here is the New York Irish Famine Memorial, on land jutting out into the ocean where the famine ships sailed in on. They say on a misty night you can hear the tolling of a coffin ship’s ghostly bell   We know now the only thing the Famine emigrants carried, with them except for tattered clothes in cardboard boxes which had just been invented. The thing they carried it was called hope, but hope is the anchor of the soul, causing the uplifting of the spirit the elevation of the heart.

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Go to Ellis Island and look at the hope and the happiness stitched on the faces of those from all over the world after they finally passed immigration and reached the fateful shore, happy that America was a place in a new world because the old world had failed and had seen them starving in the largest disaster of the 19th century in Europe.

 Let us reflect on that Famine for a moment. There was no famine in Ireland in 1845 or ‘46 or the hideous year of Black 47. There was only ethnic cleansing.

Let me be clear about why there was no famine, the definition of famine in the Oxford Dictionary is “complete scarcity of food”, but there was lots of food in Ireland, fields of amber grain in the west and south and North as far as the eyes could see at harvest time, huge granaries filled to the brim with oats and barley,  massive estates full of livestock, rivers full of fish, but only for the landlord class and the British.

How could people starve with food everywhere? 

The answer is through utter inhumanity and complete indifference in the face of mass starvation by what was then the most powerful government on Earth

.As to how willfully blind people can be Charles Trevelyan, the British administrator, who believed divine providence created the Great Hunger, thought things were going splendidly.

He remarked with deep satisfaction as the million starved and a million fled on coffin ships“ The great evil with which we have to contend with is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish perverse and turbulent character of the Irish,”

In other words, blame the lazy self-indulgent people for the hunger when British-bound food wagons were escorted by military and police escorts past the starving and the dying—75 percent of all foods in Ireland was escorted to Britain.

The sun may never set on their empire but the blood will never dry either.

Listen to the following quote from Queen Victoria’s cousin the Duke of Cambridge which is among the most contemptible statements ever written. Asked as head of the British army what could be done to stop the hunger he replied “Rotten potatoes and sea-weed, or even grass, properly mixed, affords a very wholesome and nutritious food. We all know that Irishmen could live upon anything and there was plenty of grass in the field though the potato crop would fail.” (January 1846).

In other words, let them eat grass.

Without the Great Hunger, many of you would not be here tonight. Someone from your family took their lives into their hands and embarked on a perilous six-week coffin ship ride across an often angry ocean. Before they left home they held an American wake, a final goodbye to the family and friends they would never see again.

When the Wake was over and the last ember in the fireplace had burned out and the last of the goodbyes said they set off for America. 

 The hellish journey towards the “‘fresh land’ as they called America began with a 6 dollar ticket in steerage and a living space in dark and damp quarters of six feet by six feet for a family of four. When the storms came the hatches were battened down sometimes for a week on end. Many died on board weakened by sickness and hunger their bodies flung overboard without priest or prayer.

Conditions on board for the 40-day journey were dreadful –2 privies as toilets were known then for 350 passengers. During stormy weather, they were forced to lie in complete darkness, with no sanitation with slop for food and fever sweeping through the ship like an avenging dark angel. This they endured to make it to America.

Only African Americans bound in chains suffered more, 

The last sight of the Irish coastline was called Carrick Aonar the Fastnet Rock is also known as the Carraig na Deorai the Rock of Tears.

The ships of shame were good riddance as far as the London Times could tell.

An editorial chortled ”They are going, they are going”  the exulting headline ran. ”Soon a celt will be as rare in Dublin as a red Indian in Manhattan.” 

But the ships sailed on, losing one-third of the passengers on average to disease and illness.

All here who are members of the Friendly Sons are connected to those on those coffin ships

What connects is back in 1845,1846 and 1847 the Friendly Sons were there to help on their arrival at a time when a quarter of a million a year were flooding in.

The Friendly Sons were almost alone in their endeavors. They formed the first Irish Emigrant Society to assist the teeming masses.  Best of all the Sons opened the Irish Emigrant Saving Bank which took care of the emigrants' greatest need once they settled and allowed tens of thousands of them to send money back in a completely safe fashion. 

That was a Godsend for the families desperately waiting for money for the passage back home.

Ireland depended post famine heavily on emigrants’ remittances and the all-powerful ticket of passage to America to destitute families left behind.

We will never know how many lives were  saved by this organization and the emigrant remittances but know that by your contributions tonight, you are continuing the great and  proud tradition of giving to those most in need

And if those famine emigrants could reach us today they would whisper, “never forget us, never forget who we were and how we came here. And what we went through for you..”

 The Friendly Sons have not.

Just by turning up tonight, you keep that mystic chord of memory forged in the Famine times alive, a genetic memory that will always bond the people of Ireland to the United States.


When our people came here they were not met with open arms or smiles of welcome far from it. They were compared to monkeys, imbeciles to baboons, their coarse dress mocked, and their right to be here challenged. There is always a nativist sentiment among some Americans, we can see it today. The Irish, your people, were the dregs of the earth to them.

The Know Nothings the nativist anti-Irish party was on the rampage sworn to keep the Irish out. The hatred ran across all classes. One of the most prominent citizens of his time George Templeton Strong said, after witnessing a citizen swearing-in ceremony,  “It was enough to turn a man’s stomach to see the way they were naturalizing this morning. Wretched, filthy, bestial-looking  Irish, the very scum and dregs of human nature filled the office so completely that I was almost afraid of being poisoned by going in.”

In Louisville Kentucky on Bloody Monday, August 6th, 1855 there was a series of  Know Nothing riots in  Louisville, Kentucky when the Irish attempted to vote an estimated 100 were killed including five burned alive.

Yet the Irish persevered, clung to the bottom rung and slowly began climbing. Then came the  Civil War times and once again the Irish answered the call.

Why did 140,000 Irish sign up for a Civil War they were originally no part of? It was not an economic advantage as many think as the pay was a pittance. No. The answer rings clear as a bell from the leading Irishman of his generation General Thomas Francis Meagher a legendary Fenian figure who had landed in New York after an incredible escape from a penal colony in Australia. His massive influence resulted in Abraham Lincoln naming him General of the newly formed Irish 69th.

“Lincoln liked Meagher and vice versa," says Meagher biographer Timothy Egan. Lincoln would see Meagher when he would see no one else on one occasion even rising from his sick bed.

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As to why the Irish should fight for the union Meagher pointed out Lincoln had disowned the Know-Nothings and was not an enemy of Catholicism and had spoken out about Irish freedom.

“Duty and patriotism prompt me,” Meagher said. “The Republic that gave us asylum is threatened with disruption.  Above all is it the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land. 

"To do so with the moral and material aid of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.” 

Incredibly, Meagher was far in front of Lincoln on the slavery issue, believing in giving blacks the right to vote. 

The Irish were lucky Lincoln was president. One of the hidden gems of Irish American history is just how close he came to them. He proved throughout his presidency to have a huge affinity with the Irish. It began in Springfield, Illinois, where the country lawyer had landed right at the time the railroad construction was bringing thousands of Irish north.

He was an oddity in his regard for the Irish.

His law partner James Herndon wanted to cut the throat of every Irishman, his wife Mary disliked them even though it was young Irish women, shipped in from a Chicago agency who nannied her babies, kept her house clean and dealt with her wildcat temper outbursts.

On the other hand, Lincoln was liked by the Irish servants. He gave Catherine Jordan an extra dollar a week as she was best able to tend to his wife’s alarming mood swings. He refused to fire another Irish maid who let her lover in through the back window.

In return, they taught him Robert Emmet's Speech from the Dock which he memorized and delivered as his party piece. He sang "An Emigrant's Lament", an Irish ballad of the time. He imitated the Irish accent quite well for a Kentucky boy.

When he entered Congress he spoke on behalf of Irish Freedom in a debate on Hungarian independence,  “We should also not fail to embrace the patriotic efforts of the Irish for freedom” he said. He gave $10 for Famine relief.


When he made it to the White House his Irish connections only increased. His best friend became the doorkeeper Edward McManus from Roscommon,  who had guarded the front entrance for six presidents.

McManus was the only person who could make Lincoln laugh in the midst of all his troubles.

On his first day in office, Lincoln wandered outside to buy a newspaper from a newsboy. McManus grabbed him and said “Come in you fool don’t you know you’re president now” and dragged him back inside.

There were so many Irish employed in key positions  in fact that the leading journalist of the day,  Noah Brooks,  sniffed and wrote “The president has succeeded in gathering around him a core of Hibernian descent  whose manners and style are about as disagreeable as can be.”

The staff names were as follows, McManus, and Burke, Burns, O’ Leary, O'Shea, Mangan, McGee, Moloney and Charlie Forbes from Dublin who was aboard as footman the night the horse carriage driven by James Burke from Galway set out on that fateful trip to Ford’s Theater with the president and his wife aboard on what should have been a triumphal night having won the Civil War. 

Sadly the role of 140,000 Irish soldiers and the exploits of Meagher’s Irish Brigade which was awarded 11 medals of honor in that war  are notably excluded by Ken Burns in his landmark PBS series "The Civil War." Eminent historian Gabor S. Boritt of Gettysburg College asked a key question about the Burns series: “where are the voices of the immi­grant soldiers (Irish, German, etc.) who made up 25 percent of the Union Army?" Where indeed.

The president kept in touch with the Irish. In July 1862, he visited George McClellan’s army at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia during the Civil War.

The Irish brigade had fought so bravely that an officer reported the president picked up a corner of one of the Irish colors, kissed it and said, “God Bless the Irish Flag.” Father Abraham, the greatest American of all, would never disrespect the Irish like so many others was never 

The incident is reported in The New York Times by historian Terry L. Jones, author of six books on the civil war.


We mostly know of the heroic battles the Irish fought but perhaps the most critical clash of all has been overlooked.

At Gettysburg where democracy hung by a thread on the third day Lee made his fatal decision to allow Pickett's Charge, to send 15,000 men streaming across open fields in a frontal attack on the union army. 

it was the turning point of the battle and the Civil War and the future of democracy. It was an open road for the rebels to Washington if they broke through.

The bulk of the Rebel fighters were tasked with taking the ground directly in the middle of the enemy's lines. Known as the Angle the furthest point North the army of Robert E. Lee would reach in the civil war. The Union commander, General George Meade grandson of a founder of the Friendly Sons, made an inspired guess that this was where Lee would attack.

The main regiment holding the Angle was the Pennsylvania Fighting 69th all Irish natives, led by a Famine emigrant  Denis O’Kane, from Derry, who left his wife and two children behind to fight for his new beloved country.

  As Pickett‘s men charged the 69th stood firm while about them the two regiments broke and fled the field’.

Doctor Earl Hess a University of Georgia professor and historian of Pickett’s charge wrote the Irish  69th “refused to give way, the regiment put up a magnificent fight that saved the angle and killed any chance that Pickett's charge might push the union troops off  Cemetery Hill “. Among the fatally wounded in the battle was Colonel Denis O’Kane.

Ulysses Grant after Gettysburg settled for a war of attrition, trusting  his superior manpower would eventually overwhelm Lee

But where did he get his fresh troops from? Where else but from the arriving Famine Irish driven out by the Great Hunger and into the arms of the Union..

We have direct evidence of this. Jefferson Davis president of the confederacy on August 21, 1864, along with his Secretary of  State Judah Benjamin met with the most famous and revered priest in the south Father John Bannon from Longford, a fearless pastor incredibly popular with his men.

Jefferson Davis told Bannon the Irish were making the numbers difference and needed to be stopped from coming to America. Bannon was to see the pope and then travel to Ireland to convince the clergy there the south was the side that was fighting for religious freedom.

 Bannon ran the gauntlet of the Union blockade and made it to Europe and saw the pope who refused to interfere and to  Ireland where after an initial wave of support his mission failed. As the outcome of the war  became obvious.,

Bannon never saw America again. 

About the Irish in the Civil War, there is one key statistic that somehow was passed over by Ken Burns and his merry men. The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed or mortally wounded, and approximately 3,000 were wounded. The number of casualties was more men than ever served in its ranks at any one time. 

As a testament to the Irishmen’s bravery, 11 of the unit’s members were awarded the Medal of Honor. 

As to why they fought so hard and so well Meagher said An Irish Civil War veteran could “take his stand proudly by the side of the native-born, and will not fear to look him straight and sternly in the face and tell him that he has been equal to him in his allegiance to the Constitution."

Finally, as for the assassin Booth, he was trying desperately to get away after the horrific deed. he was run to ground in a barn on the land of  Richard Garret a rebel sympathizer in Virginia lieutenant Edward Doherty the son of parents from county Sligo led the hunt for Booth It was he who pinned Booth down in the barn and eventually forced him out where he was shot in a gunfight.

Doherty became known worldwide for his role but there is a strange postscript. In a small graveyard in County Sligo is the Doherty family grave and sometime after the First World  War General Kavanagh got permission from the Doherty family to come from the US and erect a small plaque on the family grave,

It simply reads "Edward Doherty Brave Avenger". And it is still there today.

So we are no mean people as William Butler Yeats stated. Leave here content that you are not related to royalty or lords or landlords but to the Fighting Irish who battled through famine ethnic cleansing, prejudice, and hate so we could all sit here tonight as part of that indomitable tribe. What they endured we could never imagine. But they did and triumphed so all Americans could live free.

Erin go bragh.